Theatre Critic and Journalist

Katie Mitchell and Duncan Macmillan on 2071

Katie Mitchell and Duncan Macmillan on 2071

Published in The Stage, 06.11.2014

Six years ago the National Theatre put its best people on climate change. While Bijan Sheibani steered a team of writers towards Greenland, Katie Mitchell spent six months in the NT Studio working on a parallel process. Caryl Churchill stopped by, so did Martin Crimp. Even Ed Miliband, then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, dropped in for an afternoon.

Mitchell remembers it as an exhausting, infuriating attempt. “We tried every possible way of communicating it. We played scenes. We did agit-prop. We tried surrealism and symbolism. We threw everything that theatre can throw at a subject in order to find a way of representing it.” The director comes to an abrupt stop. “We just couldn’t find a form for it.”

Theatre (and art more generally) has long struggled to encapsulate climate change. Until a decade ago, it was almost completely ignored, deemed at odds with the sort of human story that drama holds best. There have been breakthroughs, but they’re occasional: Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan (2009) remains the go-to example; Greenland, the case against. Mitchell blames the subject’s complexity: “It won’t be boiled down into something simpler, and to some extent, theatre needs to boil things down.”

Yet, six years later, she’s still trying to tackle the subject. Today, Mitchell’s back in the NT Studio, though this time without actors or government ministers. Instead, she and playwright Duncan Macmillan, a regular collaborator, are sat at a large table staring at a Word document that’s covered with multi-coloured footnotes. It doesn’t look like boiling things down.

The solution she found for staging climate change was simple: just put the science onstage as is. She persuaded Professor Stephen Emmott, who had kickstarted the entire process (“He said, There’s only one subject, the environment.”), to take to the stage himself. The result was Ten Billion, an unremitting and bleak performance lecture that predicted an over-populated, under-resourced future of food wars and floodplains. Emmott’s plan of action? “Teach my son to use a gun.”

Now Mitchell’s about to repeat the trick, returning to the Royal Court with another staged scientist. In 2071, UCL’s Professor of Climate Science Chris Rapley will take the floor. Mercifully, he’s rather more optimistic than Emmott. “He really wants to get people talking about [climate change] and doing things about it, feeling as though they have some power over the problem.”

The form’s crux, says Mitchell, is authority. “If you put the real scientist there, you can’t duck what he’s saying.” Turn very real – and very pressing – facts into fiction and you allow the audience room to doubt and to dismiss those facts. Scientists, on the other hand, we trust. “It’s not possible to have contact with a real scientist and not be changed.”

Take it from one who knows: since meeting Emmott, Mitchell’s stopped flying, stopped buying new clothes and vowed to make at least one environment-themeed show a year. Last year, that was Macmillan’s Lungs, staged at the Schaubühne in Berlin in a carbon-neutral production, entirely powered by actors on bikes. “Even the curtains were recycled,” she says. The point is this: “I live a completely different life.”

Rapley is all about such “life-changers,” while remaining sensitive to people’s desire to live normal lives, not to overhaul every tenet of their existence. His philosophy is that each of us can help with, what Mitchell calls, “the three p’s” – small changes in one’s personal, professional and political lives.

At the heart of the project, then, is getting the message across. On meeting Mitchell, Emmott was adamant that science was failing to communicate the urgency to the population at large. That’s where artists come in. As Mitchell says, “If it isn’t beautiful stylistically, it won’t be heard by the lay person.”

For nine months, Macmillan has met with Rapley on a weekly basis. They’re credited as co-writers, but, he says, “hopefully my role will be completely invisible.” “It’s entirely about the structuring: our dramaturgical skills can communicate the science to a non-scientific audience.” Scientific papers start with a conclusion, then provide support. “Dramatically, that’s completely inert.” Mitchell chips in: “like playing Hamlet’s death at the beginning of Hamlet.”

Yet, if communicating the subject is so urgent, why such a short run? While Ten Billion played a handful of performances in the Royal Court Upstairs, 2071 will do 10 downstairs, before brief stints in Hamburg and (hopefully) Amsterdam. Ah, says Mitchell, but both will spawn other forms. Ten Billion has become a book. 2071 is in talks for television. Live dates are tricky: “The scientist is very busy saving the world,” says Mitchell, “He’s flying all over the world, dealing with governments and committees. We’re really lucky to get him for ten performances.”

Photograph: Alistair Muir

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